While it's not something you need to do every day, exfoliation is a crucial component of your regular skincare routine. It helps remove dead skin, encourages cell turnover, prevents clogged pores, and helps even out texture.
Reactive complexion? Don't fret. According to board-certified dermatologist Diane Madfes, MD, FAAD, folks with sensitive skin can still exfoliate. "It just has to be done in a different manner," she says. "I tend to recommend exfoliating with chemical means rather than mechanical (physical)."
In other words, your best bet is a product containing exfoliating acids (such as glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acid) or fruit enzymes. These earth-sourced ingredients essentially dissolve dead skin cells instead of physically scrubbing or brushing them off.
So, which formulas are gentle enough for even the most sensitive, dry, itchy, or inflamed complexions? We compiled expert recommendations and insight along with extensive research to bring you standout options for sensitive skin.
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel for Sensitive Skin
Rich in soothing botanicals
Might not work on acne-prone skin
Dr. Madfes is a big fan of lactic acid exfoliators for sensitive skin, such as Dr. Dennis Gross's Ultra Gentle Daily Peel. A pared-down version of the beloved Alpha Beta peel, it combines lactic and mandelic AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) with BHA (beta-hydroxy acid) salicylic acid to dissolve dead skin on the most delicate complexions.
"Gentle acids loosen the top layer of the skin and naturally shed," explains Dr. Madfes. In addition to exfoliating, these pre-soaked pads provide soothing benefits with plant-based anti-inflammatory ingredients like green tea, cucumber, and witch hazel. You'll notice visibly refined skin the first time you try it. And with regular use of this two-step system, you can count on less visible pores, reduced fine lines, and smooth-as-butter texture.
Price at time of publish: $92
Type: Lactic acid/AHA and salicylic acid/BHA; daily peel | Active Ingredients: Lactic acid, mandelic acid, salicylic acid, cucumber, green tea | Size: 30 treatments | Cruelty-Free: Yes
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA
Potentially too strong for daily use
On a budget? Your best bet is this brilliant little tincture from The Ordinary. Combining lactic acid with our favorite humectant, hyaluronic acid, it gently dissolves dead skin cells and delivers immediate hydration.For those with really sensitive skin, we recommend starting off by using it once or twice weekly and building up if your tolerance allows for it.
Price at time of publish: $9
Type: High-strength lactic acid peel | Active Ingredients: Lactic acid, hyaluronic acid | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes
What Our Testers Say
"The day after using it, my skin always feels super smooth and soft." — Joline Buscemi, Product Tester
Dr. Pierre recommends looking for chemical exfoliators with ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid, vitamin C, and multi-fruit acids. However, he warns to be careful with salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid that's often used to treat acne, because it can be quite strong.
e.l.f. Cosmetics Gentle Peeling Exfoliant
Great for all skin types
We also love e.l.f.'s Gentle Peeling Exfoliant. It ever-so-gently dissolves dead skin with papaya and tangerine fruit enzymes, then calls on licorice extract to boost radiance without irritation.The liquid texture makes it really lightweight and easy to layer in your skincare routine, too.
Price at time of publish: $10
Type: Fruit enzyme liquid peel | Active Ingredients: Fruit enzymes, licorice extract | Size: 3 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best With Retinol
Absolute Joi Skin Refining Night Oil with Retinol and Vitamins C+E
Increases cell turnover
Contains organic ingredients
Retinoids can have an exfoliating effect while encouraging cell turnover. In addition to retinol, this skin-refining potion is chock full of antioxidants and plant oils like jojoba, argan, and evening primrose to replenish stressed complexions.It's great that it's in the form of an oil because it works to address uneven skin texture while also maintaining a moisturizing formula.
Price at time of publish: $57
Type: Fruit enzyme night oil | Active Ingredients: Retinol, vitamin C, plant oils | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Mara Chia + Moringa Algae Enzyme Cleansing Oil
Cleanses and removes makeup
Cleansing oils are great for people with sensitive skin because they work to clean the skin while also providing necessary moisture and remaining super gentle. This one is fantastic for general cleansing as well as makeup removal, and we love that the formula contains a blend of fruit enzymes to provide exfoliation, as well as squalane and superfoods to nourish and hydrate the skin. We also appreciate that the texture is luxe-feeling, but isn't too thick or hard to spread around the face.
Price at time of publish: $58
Type: Glycolic acid/AHA cleanser | Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, squalane | Size: 4 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant Exfoliator
Contains physical and chemical exfoliants
There is a slight learning curve
If you're partial to exfoliating powders, you'll love Dermalogic's award-winning Daily Microfoliant. Boasting a much-deserved large following, it gently exfoliates with rice bran and salicylic acid while calming irritation with colloidal oatmeal.It can take a bit of practice to figure out how much water to combine it with for the optimal experience, but once you do, it works to gently exfoliate the skin and reveal a more radiant complexion. If you have dry or super sensitive skin, use it just once or twice a week.
Price at time of publish: $18, $65
Type: Salicylic acid/BHA and fruit enzyme daily cleanser | Active Ingredients: Rice bran, colloidal oatmeal, salicylic acid | Size: 0.5, 2.6 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Farmacy Honeymoon Glow AHA Resurfacing Night Serum
3-in-1: Resurfaces, hydrates, and clarifies
Won't cause redness
Farmacy Honeymoon Glow contains a gentle medley of AHAs and BHAs to address uneven texture, hyperpigmentation, and clogged pores. But it doesn't stop there—hyaluronic acid⁷ and honey¹² hydrate, plump, and protect reactive skin. Note that it is a potent formula, so we recommend patch testing and using sparingly at first.
Price at time of publish: $60
Type: Salicylic acid/BHA and glycolic acid/AHA night serum | Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, salicylic acid, honey, hyaluronic acid | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes
What Our Testers Say
"A few days after I began using the serum, I noticed that my skin began to feel smoother and softer." — Olivia Hancock, Product Tester
Bolden Brightening Glycolic Acid Toner
Fades dark spots
Strengthens skin barrier
Generous amount of supply
Skin may feel a bit sticky
This is hands down, the best exfoliating toner for sensitive skin. Combining glycolic acid with niacinamide and licorice root, the ultra-hydrating formula dissolves dead cells and sebum, and strengthens the skin barrier.We also love that it's suitable for all skin types, including acne-prone.
Price at time of publish: $20
Type: Glycolic acid/AHA toner | Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, niacinamide, licorice root | Size: 7.5 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask
Makes skin feel revitalized
Convenient leave-on formula
Has a strong fragrance
This Byrdie favorite ever-so-gently exfoliates with lactic acid, glycolic acid, and pumpkin enzymes, while watermelon extract and hyaluronic acid soothe and hydrate the skin. We also love that it's an overnight mask, making it easy and convenient to apply before bed and let it work its magic while you sleep.
Price at time of publish: $21, $40
Type: Glycolic acid and lactic acid/AHA nightly mask | Active Ingredients: Lactic acid, glycolic acid, pumpkin enzymes, watermelon extract, hyaluronic acid | Size: 0.8, 2 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes
SeSpring So Polished Sugar Scrub
Balances the skin
Sugar dissolves rapidly
"A great manual exfoliation is the SeSpring So Polished Sugar Scrub because it's gentle and contains camellia and lotus, which hydrate, nourish, and balance, while peony soothes and protects the skin," says celebrity esthetician Joshua Ross of SkinLab. It's particularly ideal for those with sensitive skin because the scrubbing particles are extremely gentle.
Price at time of publish: $15
Type: Fruit enzyme scrub | Active Ingredients: Sugar, squalane, botanical extracts | Size: 3.38 fluid ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Redness
Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster
Warm weather may create chalky consistency
To combat redness, reach for this skincare booster from Paula's Choice. The key ingredient is azelaic acid, an impressively effective yet notably mild exfoliant that tackles everything from rosacea to uneven texture to general inflammation.We also appreciate its versatility—it can be applied on its own or mixed in with your nighttime serum or moisturizer.
Price at time of publish: $39
Type: Salicylic acid/BHA brightening serum | Active Ingredients: Azelaic acid, salicylic acid, licorice root | Size: 1 ounce | Cruelty-Free: Yes
First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads
Leaves skin feeling clean
Results aren't as dramatic as other options
Exfoliating pads are great for travel and mess-free application in general, and these are the best ones for people with sensitive skin. The pads themselves are soft, and the formula is gentle enough not to irritate reactive skin. They're pre-soaked with AHAs to dissolve dead skin, plus licorice root extract and calming ingredients like green tea and aloe vera.
Price at time of publish: $36
Type: Lactic acid and glycolic acid/AHA gel | Active Ingredients: Lactic acid, glycolic acid, licorice root, green tea | Size: 28 to 60 pads | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Body
Topicals Slather Exfoliating Body Serum
Leaves skin soft and radiant
Comes in recyclable packaging
Hard to control how much comes out when you squeeze the tube
If you're looking to incorporating an exfoliating product into your body care routine, we highly recommend this one from Topicals. It's a lightweight body serum with a lotion-like texture that utilizes the power of encapsulated all-trans-retinol (a gentle form of retinol) as well as glycolic and lactic acids to smooth skin texture. It's fast-absorbing, works to rid the skin of flakes and bumps, and leaves it looking smooth and radiant.
Price at time of publish: $36
Type: Retinol, lactic acid and glycolic acid/AHA serum | Active Ingredients: Retinol, lactic acid, glycolic acid | Size: 5 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Our number one pick is the Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel. The two-step exfoliator calls on AHAs and BHAs to slough off dead skin and dissolve sebum while calming stressed complexions with green tea and cucumber. For something with a more agreeable price tag, we recommend The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA, which gently removes dry skin and delivers immediate hydration.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Brian Hibler is a board-certified and Harvard-fellowship trained medical and cosmetic dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.
- Diane Madfes, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in facial rejuvenation, non-ablative laser resurfacing, chemical peels, and general skincare. She is an attending physician at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
- Joshua Ross is an esthetician, celebrity facialist, and the founder of SkinLab, a premier cosmetic beauty boutique based in Los Angeles.
What to Look for in an Exfoliator for Sensitive Skin
If you have sensitive skin, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Brian Hibler recommends reaching for alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs, for gentle chemical exfoliation. “Start with an AHA such as glycolic, lactic, or mandelic acid at a low concentration, once a week,” he says. “If your skin can tolerate it, you may increase to two or three times a week. There’s no need to rush to a high concentration. It’s more important to be consistent with use and go slowly to avoid creating excess irritation.” That said, he also recommends spot-testing any new product in an inconspicuous location and waiting a full 24 hours before applying it to the whole face.
Of all the AHAs available, he says that lactic acid is one of the most gentle; it has a softening and moisturizing effect and can be used on a more regular basis, even by those with sensitive skin. He also recommends that sensitive skin types be careful when using beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs, like salicylic acid. “Although beneficial for acne, salicylic acid may be too harsh for sensitive skin—it should be introduced at a very low concentration.”
Another acid (that doesn’t fall into the AHA or BHA category) Dr. Hibler recommends is azelaic acid, an antioxidant-rich ingredient he says helps unclog pores, brighten the skin, and help with inflammatory conditions like acne and rosacea.
Exfoliation can dry out the skin, so Dr. Hibler suggests reaching for combination products that also contain hydrating ingredients like plant oils or hyaluronic acid. This, he says, will prevent the skin from drying out, leaving the complexion soft and smooth. The Mara Chia + Moringa Algae Enzyme Cleansing Oil is a great hydrating option.
Free from Potential Irritants
Lastly, Dr. Hibler recommends using products that are free of common irritants like artificial fragrances, dyes, alcohol, and preservatives. While many of these ingredients won’t aggravate most skin types, it’s not worth chancing a potential bad reaction if your skin is on the sensitive side.
How do you apply an exfoliator for sensitive skin?
The proper way to apply an exfoliator depends on the type of product you're using. There are cleansers and scrubs, which you combine with water, massage onto your skin, then rinse clean. Then you've got pre-soaked pads and exfoliating toners, which you gently rub around clean skin. Some exfoliating products come in the form of serums that go on after cleansing, along with masks and treatments, which can often be left on overnight. It's always best to follow the directions on the packaging of the product you're using.
How often should you use an exfoliator if you have sensitive skin?
"In general, I would recommend somebody exfoliating once a week if they have sensitive skin," says Ross. "Over-exfoliation can lead to a compromised liquid barrier, which will exacerbate sensitive skin and could lead to redness and further irritate skin conditions such as rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema."
What products can you use along with an exfoliator for sensitive skin?
"Always follow with a moisturizer containing hyaluronic acid or glycerin," advises Dr. Madfes. Beyond that, you can use most other skincare products along with an exfoliator.
However, be mindful when using other actives, such as retinol, bakuchiol, vitamin C, tea tree oil, or caffeine, as these ingredients could irritate the brand-new skin you just exposed through exfoliation.¹ When combining skincare products with exfoliants, Dr. Madfes says, "Look for a pH balance close to normal skin, around 5."
Why Trust Byrdie?
Theresa Holland is a skincare aficionado and commerce copywriter specializing in cosmetics. She interviewed a board-certified dermatologist and a licensed esthetician for this article, compiling their product recommendations, insight into formulations, and application tips. Before landing on her final selections, she pored over user reviews, combed through ingredients lists, and referenced several peer-reviewed articles. From the above, Theresa is personally fond of Dr. Dennis Gross, Paula's Choice, Glow Recipe, First Aid Beauty, Dermalogica, and My Konjac Sponge.
According to our Diversity Pledge, 15% of products in our newly-published market roundups will feature Black-owned and/or Black-founded brands. At the time of publishing, we were not able to find enough exfoliators for sensitive skin from Black-owned and/or Black-founded businesses to meet this percentage. If you know of one we should consider, please email us at email@example.com and we will evaluate the product ASAP.
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